There is a reason winter is called “cold season.” There are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold, but most often the culprits are rhinoviruses, which thrive in colder temperatures. Another reason that people get more colds in winter is that they spend more time indoors, exposing them to groups of people — and their germs — in confined spaces. Contrary to common belief, you cannot catch a cold by failing to dress warmly enough when you venture out.
The flu is caused by the influenza virus and is distinguished from a cold in that it causes fever, chills, and body aches in addition to the stuffy nose, cough, and sore throat that characterize the common cold. Some people are at a much higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 12,000 to 79,000 people died annually from the flu since 2010.
Flu season begins in October and does its worst at the height of winter. And though the numbers vary from year to year, according to the CDC, getting the flu vaccine in advance of winter can reduce your chance of getting the flu by 40% to 60%.
Usually caused by viruses, sore throats are symptoms of colds and flu, though they can also be caused by allergies or result from simply breathing dry winter air with the mouth open while sleeping. According to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), there is some evidence that going from warm to cold temperatures can make your throat feel sore.
About 10% of sore throats are caused by a bacterial infection, and usually the culprit is the streptococcus bacterium, which causes strep throat. Because it is highly contagious, strep throat circulates in winter when groups of people are more likely to be in close quarters. Unlike a conventional sore throat, untreated strep throat can have serious consequences, leading to kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever.
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, usually caused by airborne viruses or bacteria. Like so many winter ailments, its prominence in the colder months is attributed to people being in close proximity. Pneumonia is a leading cause of death, largely because it often goes undetected as its symptoms vary and mimic those of other illnesses, such as the flu. The CDC estimates that 50,000 die of pneumonia each year.
People are particularly vulnerable to getting pneumonia when they suffer from a cold or the flu because their immune system is already being taxed. And because of their particular vulnerability, the CDC encourages people over 65 to get two different pneumonia vaccines.
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